John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

But on the other hand there was no point-so far-in any of this ritual. At least, the desired effect had not been accomplished. If even his own consort had not sufficed to provoke the sought-after reaction, what would? Duke Vaul cast around in his mind.

On impulse, he signaled the deputy chief priest, and pointed a hairy-backed finger at the chief priest himself. “Take him,” he directed.

And that was no good, either.

Accordingly, he sent out the temple guard into the city at half an hour past noon of that day, and the guardsmen set about gathering idle citizens into the yard before the temple. If it wasn’t a matter of quality, reasoned Duke Vaul, it might perhaps be a matter of quantity. The second priest-now of course the chief priest by right of succession-had been consulted, and had given it as his considered opinion that a hundred all at once must have the desired effect. Duke Vaul, to be on the safe side, had ordained that a thousand should be brought to the temple, and had set carpenters and metalsmiths to work on the chain-jangling gallows to accommodate them.

The temple guardsmen carried out their assignment with a will, all the better because they feared the lot might fall on them when Duke Vaul had used up his supply of ordinary townsfolk. They brought in everyone they could catch, and among the crowd was a small man in black clothing, who seemed to be consumed with uncontrollable laughter.

His merriment, in fact, was so extreme that it became infectious, and the Duke noticed the fact and bellowed across the temple floor in a howl of fury.

“Who is that idiot who laughs in this sacred spot?” his bull voice demanded. “Does the fellow not realize that these are serious matters and may be disturbed by the least error in our actions? Priests! Drag him forth and make him stand before me!”

In a little while, because the throng was so great, the black-clad traveler was escorted to the foot of the duke’s dais.. He bowed compliantly enough when the rough hand of a guardsman struck him behind the head, but the cheerful twinkle did no depart from his eyes, and this peculiarity struck Duke Vaul at once.

He began to muse about the consequences of sacrificing one who did not take the Quadruple God seriously, and eventually spoke through the tangle of his beard.

“How do men call you, foolish one?” he boomed.

“I have many names, but one nature.”

“And why are you laughing at these holy matters?”

“But I am not!”

“Then are you laughing at me?” thundered the duke, heaving himself forward on his throne so that the boards of the dais creaked and squealed. His eyes flashed terribly.

“No, I laugh at the foolishness of mankind,” said the black-clad traveler.

“So! In what impressively mirthful manner is this foolishness manifest, pray?”

“Why, thus,” the traveler said, and told the story of Tolex and Ripil, fighting before the gate of the city.

But Duke Vaul did not find the anecdote in the least degree amusing. He commanded that the temple guard should at once go in search of these two, and fumed while they were hunted down. When they arrived, however, it was as corpses they were laid on the temple floor.

“Mighty Duke!” cried the guardsmen respectfully, bowing their heads as one, and then let their captain continue.

“Sire, we found these two clasped dying in each other’s arms. Each bore one bloody cudgel; each has a broken skull.”

“Throw them into the river,” said Duke Vaul curtly, and resumed converse with the black-clad traveler.

“You arrogate to yourself the right to laugh at men’s foolishness,” he said, and gave a wicked grin. “Then tell me this: are you yourself entirely wise?”

“Alas, yes,” said the traveler. “I have but one nature.” “Then you can succeed where all my so-called wise men have failed. See you this idol?”

“I could hardly avoid seeing it. It is a considerable work of-ah–art.”

“It is claimed that a way exists to invest it with life, and when this way is found it will then set forth to lay waste the enemies of this city and execute justice upon them. By every means we have sought to bestow life upon it; we have given it blood, which is life, as you doubtless know, from every class and condition of person. Even my consort, who but a few hours ago sat beside me on this throne”-the duke wiped away an imaginary tear-“now hangs with her throat gashed on that chain-jangling gibbet before the altar. Still, though, the idol declines to come to life. We need its aid, for our enemies are abroad in every corner of the world; from Ryovora to the ends of the earth they plot our downfall and destruction.”

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